Image by assbach via Flickr Source: gakana
Fifteen years ago, I came to the United States, from Guyana as a foreign student. Everything was suppose to change for me. As I stepped off the airplane for the first time upon entering this country on my own, I felt I was stepping out of one room, into another. It wasn't supposed to be just a temporary, symbolic feeling. It had to be the real thing. In truth, behind the well-wishes of success, I was escaping from what I had hoped was my previous life.
I grew up in Guyana. At the age of 8 I was frequently being told I was 'like a girl' by most people who laid eyes on me. Discretion, political correctness and politeness were, and are still television concepts to most Guyanese. At the age of 11 when I had no other option than to recognize that I was sexually attracted to other men, I lived everyday in a state of panic. Even so I vehemently denied that I was homosexual. I was bent on changing the nature of my existence through sheer will. It's no exaggeration. Being tuned into the intolerance, I came to learn that the men being reported as murdered in the newspapers were in fact gay men who had been killed (as have been ongoing, check the newspapers people!). I heard the discussions in my father's store as casual business conversations between his customers, and I heard it in my home. By the time I went to high school, I was already in internal turmoil. The music was filled with lyrics promoting killing homosexuals. What the music did, was stimulate the public's venom for gay men. It also made me acutely aware of the danger I was living in. Classmates threatened to kill me if they found me on the street, and the others pushed, kicked and punched me. Thinking of complaining to the teachers were out of reach.
Each day was living in a war zone. I don't know how I got up to go to school. The resilience at that age was amazing. Yet today I know better. In high school, by the age of 15 I was treated like an outcast. Banned by the other boys from the locker room, and dismissed by the teachers as an effeminate and withdrawing boy, I was bullied and mocked. Part of my effeminacy was because I realized I had to prevent myself from maturing to not be found out. If I could remain immature, it was a pass to continue not showing interest in girls and being quiet. It's something I strived for.
The masculine stereotype in Guyana was so far away from me. Every bit of my energy was used to keep up an appearance of some form of immaturity and feigned aloofness to the ridicule I was enduring daily. The disapproval of family was excruciating. As a matter of fact, while I tried going about my daily activities, there were continued reports of homosexual battery. Of course the stigma of homosexuality prevented families and newspapers from saying what it was, but the unofficial public reports were frank. There was no remorse or consideration for the human being that was being discussed. It was as if being gay was the lowest, most brutal affliction one could be accused of. Violence was the only response. When my maternal uncles jocularly discussed seeing an 'anti-man' covered in blood by the St. Roses high school, I withdrew further. When I saw their childhood friend covered in blood and bruises because he was accused of being gay, I could only survive by detaching myself from my emotions. I cowed for most of my life.
That's the life I was escaping from at the age of 17. I was in anguish. I hoped to step off the plane in New York and become a new person. Obviously I was terribly naive, even in a state of forced detachment, to believe it would be so simple. I attended college, which was not an easy task for me, having somehow made it through high school without much studying. All my energy was, after all, exhausted everyday in metal distress. I did well at first, but things started faltering because of the hostility I found myself in because I lived with a Guyanese family. I was tormented daily because I was still a shy, insecure, man who flinched at the air and hid in the basement. I never learned to socialize. So I ran away to Florida in my second year.
Again, I thought that if I freed myself from Guyanese I would find my courage and become like all the other people my age. They were carefree, brave and relaxed. I was tense, hunched and anxious every waking moment of the day. People stayed away from me because I looked skittish and unhealthy. I couldn't unlearn it just by changing my environment, so when I went into the shared bath one day and my eyes caught hold of the only naked man I had seen, I stared too long, and things fell apart.
There was definitely severe emotional bruising when I came to the United States, but after the word 'faggot' was carved into my dorm door, and death threat notes were slipped under my door, the past, the anguish caught up. I suffered a severe depressive episode. I tried slitting my wrists. I couldn't leave my bed for weeks to attend classes. Only the threat, from my antagonistic roommate, of calling the police, spurred me to seek help. I was too ashamed to identify as gay, even admit it to an on campus counselor was intimidating. So I met Dr Wordney off-campus. If I hadn't gone to see him, I would not be writing this. His words, that it was okay to be gay, gave me the first inkling that I wasn't a monstrosity. His relaxation techniques, his touch were like ambrosia to me. Human touch, affection, acknowledgement were all so alien to me.
My academic performance in Florida was non-existent after the first few exams. My performance went from A to F. I was out of the will to continue going to classes. I was only alive, unable to thrive. The therapy was a monetary drain, so I had to return to New York. It took me a few months to be able to return to studying, but then I was able to finish off my bachelor's degree. I have to admit, that the first year in New York, my grades were excellent. When I returned from Florida, I had to work harder to concentrate. I did well and went on to my master's degree. All the while, unable to admit I was gay because the people I lived with were unrelenting. I've been on and off of anti-depressants most of my adult life, and will probably continue to do so.
I met W in 2002, and we've been together since then. Given my past, even while seeing him, I saw me struggle with my self. Admitting that I was gay was a big step that took many years, even while he stayed with me. Even with medication and therapy, it takes so much energy to come to terms with one's sexuality. Battling depression while doing it has made it so much more difficult. I've made progress with my self-acceptance, only to have it slip away when I experienced an episode of depression. It all came to head in 2008 when I was pursuing my PhD. The pretense that I was comfortable with myself, the stress from the program, and the unrelenting fear of returning to Guyana led to another severe depressive episode, and I couldn't continue studying. I was forced with returning to Guyana, but after all the work I had done with self-acceptance and growth, having a committed relationship and a social network here, how could I? All the years of running would have been for naught. It's why I'm here, filing for asylum. An undocumented gay man, in an 8 year relationship, even married, but without a country.
It's still illegal to live as a gay man in Guyana in 2010. Things have not improved since I ran away. I've lived in the United States country for the past 15 years, and have made remarkable progress in accepting myself. Wayne and I are on the brink of being split apart because neither of our countries recognize our relationship. So as I await my asylum interview, I am both relieved and desperate. I have found a network in the recent past that has speeded up my emotional healing. I no longer flinch while walking down the street or sitting on the subway. I no longer feel as if I am doing something wrong by being gay. I've grown brave and outspoken. The Center has been an amazing support for all this. I achieved in 2 years at the Center what has taken me most of my life: to march in the New York City Pride Parade, and to be as effeminate or as masculine as I want to be on any given day. I can just be me, without the overwhelming self-criticism and self-consciousness I suffered from only 2 yeras ago. Even when, this spring, I was accosted on the subway for the way I was dressed and sitting, I didn't flinch or run, I sat and crossed my legs. More recently I was able to visit an aunt who had been tremendously hurtful to me when I came to New York, and tell her how I felt and who I am. She apologized.
I'd like to think that I've finally crossed that threshold I had hoped to, upon stepping off the airplane over a decade ago. I'm brave, outspoken and comfortable being a gay man. I've become an active member in the gay community, specifically with other gay men and women fleeing persecution. Even so, I cannot make the mistake and assume that I will not have to struggle to retain who I have become, without slipping back, if depression flares. My husband, my network at the Center and my free healthcare providers are integral to my new found equanimity and happiness. Maybe, soon, if Guyana is put behind me, depression will remit. My life with my husband will flourish, and I will be able to complete my academic pursuit.
Gakana.com is a website described as 'The Undocumented Gay Immigrant: A gay man needs to come to terms with his sexuality, Immigration status, and mental health. His feelings in Poetry and Prose.' It is 'dedicated to the Undocumented LGBT community in the US, and LGBT community in Guyana. Life in the shadows is no life to live.'
Saturday, 9 October 2010
Image by assbach via Flickr Source: gakana